Fortitude – Week 8

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

Over the week, I reflected on structural build up and the ways that I deal with it.

I have a lot to do, structurally. Commitments add up, and start interfering with each other in my head. So, to start the week, I decided to make space. On Sunday, after visiting Hokusai at the State Gallery, I finished a small legacy project to copy the Dao de Jing by hand, as a way to better connect with Chinese thought and language. Then, I prepared for a full week ahead with anticipated training exercises and three sessions of Qi Gong, enjoying the beautiful spring weather.

Reading and physical exercise take incompressible time, but creative work, generating ideas, writing even, can be surprisingly fast, especially with a clear head! But then – getting a clear head can be the challenge.

The result of long-term neglect can manifest as a sudden change in a system, calling for immediate attention. There is a clog in my kitchen sink. It is likely to be the result of accumulated fat. Eight years of oil lining the pipes, slowly congealing and slowing flow, suddenly formed a block, which I must now attend to. This is, and isn’t, a new problem – the symptoms are, but the cause has built up over a long time. The same holds of our lives and bodies.

Fortitude meets hope and faith in the capacity to pace our action. I often get overwhelmed at the beginning of a cycle: there is so much on my plate, and I wonder how I could ever get through the lot. It is, in part, a default of projection. I imagine myself completing all tasks in the early days – and as much as I can, do, sometimes at the cost of serious strain. Then, halfway through the cycle, I find myself in a lull, and start nursing my tiredness. Eventually, unexpected last minute changes come up, requiring attention. Things happen in sequence. Some come first, others second. Fortitude is the courage to do things, and patiently continue doing them – but fortitude is also the courage to delay some, because others have to take priority.

What is the best way to pace oneself, though? Is it, as I did at the beginning of the week, to clear space by packing in recurring commitments, and leave room for focused attention later? Or is it, quite on the opposite, the deliberate preservation of empty times for rest and nurture, so that, when the time of action arrives, we can address challenges with a rested head? Trust, here, plays in – that others can take over and watch while we rest, and that, when the time for action does arrive, we will be ready to face it, and effectively deal with the challenge ahead.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 273

Sit-ups: 273

Squats: 273

Dog-cows: 273

Bird-dogs: 273

Back twists: 273

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 8 reps for each element

Meditation: 8 sessions

 

Fortitude – Week 7

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I reflected on the calm that emerges from getting things done.

Since all I could think about was finishing my endless list of half-read books, I decided that, over a week-end set aside for rest, I would finish four. That was about 18 hours of reading in two days which, strictly speaking, seemed possible. I even thought it might be relaxing. It worked. By the end of Sunday, I was down to 55 hours by the end of the year, and two books only: Musil’s Man Without Qualities, and Cao Xueqin’s Story of the Stone. Which came with a deep sense of calm.

A month of travel in June, directly followed by intense activity, left me flustered and exhausted. It was a cold winter in Melbourne, I had a string of deadlines to meet, and major PhD writing to do. I pushed all sorts of minor things aside and – therefore –  accumulated a guilty backlog of mental to-do’s: follow up emails to write, clusters of mess in drawers and folders, and a general sense of impending doom and profound inadequacy. With my PhD mid-candidature deadline passed, I decided to clear this up. On Monday, I took the morning off to write down each of the things in my brain on a yellow post-it note, and start classifying them. Then, one-by-one, I started getting them done.

Unexpected things happen, we change course, and leave a commitment pending. Over time, this accumulates, and we live with a constant work-lag. It’s not much – 3 to 5 hours would suffice to get rid of it – but it creates a grating nervous tension. The solution is either to resolutely tick the log off by putting in extra work, pass it on to someone, or firmly decide that it will never get done. That’s what I did on Tuesday, killing off some past commitment, then tackling others face-on. I spent an evening finishing a range of web-design and editing tasks. It was not a particularly pleasant process, but when I closed off my computer by 10h30, I felt a deep satisfaction. As we do when we travel overseas, and finally reach the room: we feel weary from the plane and buses and jetlag, but here’s a bed, we’ve done what we needed, and now the only thing we should be doing is rest.

We spend a lot of our lives in the past and the future – ruminating on failures and frustrations, or anxiously waiting for things to come. But fortitude brings a great sense of presence: it is about adapting to what the moment requires of us. Part of courage is a capacity to drop our worries, so that we can better engage with what is there. Fortitude exists in the present.

That sense of presence also directly stems from a regular exercise routine: daily gymnastics, meditation and qi-gong affect the brain, and bring a sort of mechanic joy. This joy extends to the act of training itself, which I am now beginning to relish for its own sake. As the number of reps increases, I notice that their level of intensity, and my capacity to give them full attention, is growing in parallel.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. 

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 237

Sit-ups: 237

Squats: 237

Dog-cows: 237

Bird-dogs: 237

Back twists: 237

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 7 reps for each element

Meditation: 7 sessions

Fortitude – Week 6

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I focused on the relationship between fortitude, effort and difficulty.

I can control the way that I relate to the world and others – what some would call my energy, or my presence. I can make myself large or small, harsh or smooth, erect imaginary walls to protect myself, or aggressively project myself forward. Modifying the quality of my presence requires a deliberate effort of attention and imagination which, with habit, becomes easier. If I anchor myself deep in the ground, project a goal, conjure allies behind me, and actively take centre, I will have greater influence in any situation. But often I simply let things happen, and others take over. This fleeting state of being in the world goes against fortitude.

I experiment with new ways of sequencing my physical exercises – in particular, rather than getting through thirty-two push ups, then do 32 squats, I alternate. Certain muscles relax while I flex others, and not only can I do more in less time, but the difficulty reduces, so that I recover faster. The goal of exercise is not to be tired, but strong: therefore, smart pacing is part of fortitude.

This is where two versions of the virtue may clash – let’s call them Greek and Chinese. In the Greek tradition, the dominant way to think about courage is under the guise of heroism: this is not about results, but an individual facing danger, even when death is certain, to make a point or set an example, because it is the right thing to do. This is courage in the Iliad. Odysseus achieves the result of bringing the Greeks inside Troy through cunning, yet receives ambiguous respect. In contrast, the Chinese tradition considers result over subjective drive. Fortitude here is about the great man patiently bearing with a negative situation so that, when it changes, they can rise up to the occasion, and make things right again. This is the wisdom of the Yi Jing: bear with evil, for it will pass on its own; preserve yourself, for you will be needed later.

On Thursday morning, I did a mediocre PhD mid-candidature presentation. I have chosen to pursue three strands of work: research on digital learning tools, editing for the Global Challenges Foundation, and program development for Marco Polo Project. This is an ongoing debate in my head: is fortitude the courage to let one of those go, because the workload is too high and I will disappoint? Or is fortitude tolerating a lower level of achievement on more secondary aspects of each project, and the mild discomfort that goes with it? The same tension echoes within my PhD research: I deliberately positioned my attempt at understanding digital Chinese language learning across disciplines, for I believe it is the only way to properly grasp the nature of the object. As a result, I must pay special attention to conceptual consistency and accessibility to readers with different types of expertise. This is not unacknowledged, yet I’m not getting too much slack for even attempting. I wonder therefore: is fortitude better supported by cheers, or by consistently demanding high standards irrespective of difficulty? And to what extent do the structures of our training and learning institutions support fortitude – and the decision to do what is important and relevant, rather than what can be done with perfection within an existing paradigm?

Then I started thinking of a new way to understand fortitude: the virtue reduces the role that difficulty plays in our decision-making. It helps us guide our lives and actions not on the basis of whether something will be hard, but whether it is right, important, and fulfilling.

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 201

Sit-ups: 201

Squats: 201

Dog-cows: 201

Bird-dogs: 201

Back twists: 201

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 6 reps for each element

Meditation: 5 sessions

 

Fortitude – Week 5

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I reflected on the connection between time and effort.

Reading through my backlog of books does not only take time. I stopped reading them for a reason. Over the week-end, I finish Khadra’s Algerian Quartett, Kadare’s autobiography, and life of Marco Polo, then start Simon Tay’s City of Small Wonders. I explore life under despotic regimes, travel along the silk road, and return to Singapore after a failed attempt at migration to Canada. By then, I’m down to 98 hours of reading: it is a lot for a task I experience as a drudge. I cynically calculate that if I spent that much time working, I would make thousands of dollars.

I experience a similar tension with my exercise routine. It’s only 15 to 20 minutes a day, but the cognitive and emotional burden is heavy. It feels as if most of my days are nothing for fortitude training. Yet – and here is the paradox – I appreciate my own time better. On Monday evening, I was tired, yet rather than stream a random movie, I read through my books, because if I didn’t, it would still be there the following day, and I finished my collection of Chinese ghost stories.

By Tuesday night, I was down to ten books, and could finally see the time when it was only three, then a time when it was finished. Sure, I am leaving the meatiest aside: 60 chapters of Dream in the Red Pavilion, and three quarters of Musil’s Man without Qualities. Still, better two tabs open than twenty. And as I look forward to this time, in a few months, when the backlog is dealt with, I do consider it as precious, but also, oddly, experience it as infinite.

Exercise is supposed to lift us up. I don’t know that it’s doing this for me. I am stretching my physical limits, and feel my body changing. There is a mild despair, but also visible change. Maybe, what I am doing is build pressure, to test my commitment, and see what will give.

Should social courage, and facing the fear of ridicule, be considered part of fortitude? I will not give up on my exercise routine, but on Thursday, had not time to finish it in the morning. So, at about 7pm, I did 12 reps of each exercise by the water in docklands, lifting arm and leg in my suit pant, after an all-day conference and before heading to dinner with a friend.

On Friday, I wasn’t able to do any morning exercise: I had a lunchtime flight to Adelaide, I wanted a computer-free long week-end, and so, chose to close all my online tasks in the morning. Once I landed, tiredness kicked in, so rather than push-ups in a park, I went for cakes at the market. I started thinking, maybe this is when I take a day off. But there was an evening opportunity: back home early, routines on the balcony, while my partner patiently sipped on a beer. I’m up to 30 reps now, I haven’t skipped a day. This is not impossible.

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 165

Sit-ups: 165

Squats: 165

Dog-cows: 165

Bird-dogs: 165

Back twists: 165

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 5 reps for each element

Meditation: 5 sessions of 30’

 

 

Fortitude – Week 4

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I reflected on the connection between fortitude and focus.

The boundary between fortitude and prudence is not clear. For if fortitude demands that we stand up when required while, other times, we patiently wait, then we must be conscious of what evil we face. Every Sunday, I spend an hour planning the week ahead. This week, I went through three ways of doing so. First, I made a to-do list – a discrete set of tasks I intend to complete, with a clear end-goal for each. In parallel, I gave myself a list of activities, with a commitment to spend a certain time on each. Finally, I listed the various areas where I wanted to make change over the week, personal and professional – then, two by two and, went through the list and asked, if I was to be very sick and could only do one, which would it be, thus ranking them in order of priority.

I am an avid reader: I start many books, and, sometimes, lose track of them. On Monday, I went through my bookshelves, and took out all the books I had started and left there. I held them for a moment, Maria Konde style, asking if they brought me joy. If they didn’t, I put them on a pile to give away. If they did, I made a commitment to finish them before the end of the year. In total, by the end of Monday, I had taken out seventeen books to finish, totalling over 7000 pages. This archive I will clear; doing so will require patience.

Physical exercise – and meditation – involves a rhythmic alternation: sit-up, lie down; push-up, come down; breathe in, breathe out. Movement involves a  pivot, left, right, forward, backward. A certain set of muscles tense, then relax, while another set take over. Exercise is not ‘tension’ followed by nothingness. Rather, it is the coordinated and deliberate tension of certain muscles while others relax – and the capacity to precisely control which will do what.

When, on Monday, I committed to finishing all the books I have in progress, it was like throwing a stone in muddy water. Soon, I was overcome with a sense of mild panic. I quickly finished two books that only had a few pages left – but found two more that I had forgotten about; so the page count increased. All the stories and arguments of those 17 books twisted in my head when I looked at them in a pile. I found myself picking books one by one, read a few pages, then pick up another, overcome with a sense of impossibility – how does one read 7000 pages? Even if all I did was read, it would take me nine or ten entire days to complete the task. So, I cut it up. Eight works of fiction, nine essays, I grouped them in matching pairs (one threesome), estimating the time I would need for each step. The task, analysed and ordered in this manner, had become manageable. I picked up Ismael Kadare’s autobiography, which had been sitting unfinished on my bookshelves for over nine years, and started over. Page by page.

The plight of Australia: wealth without a plan. This is, roughly, what Philip Kingston articulated at an event on Thursday. The thing most lacking in our country today is not money, talent or resources – but a compelling narrative, and strength of conviction. We sit on a goldmine, but we don’t know where we’re going. This resonated again on Friday, as I worked further on better presenting the work of Marco Polo Project. What is the precise outcome of our programs? Martial arts, and music, train us not to develop greater strength and stamina, but rather, extreme precision of movement. The same is true for the rest of our lives: courage is not only readiness to die, or brute capacity to forge ahead, but a willingness and capacity to say precisely: this is what I want, this is what I refuse, here is the precise boundary. And bravely face the prospect of getting it wrong.

Exercise tally

Push-ups: 129

Sit-ups: 129

Squats: 129

Dog-cows: 129

Bird-dogs: 129

Back twists: 129

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 4 reps for each element

Meditation: 4 sessions of 30’

 

Fortitude – Week 3

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

In this third week, I reflected on the relationship between fortitude, strength and confidence.

After two weeks of gradual build-up, I feel physically more able to go through the set of exercises I imposed on myself daily. I can better control their execution, both because the muscles have grown, and because my brain is more in tune with my body.

As I become more aware of my own capacity, I no longer think of those exercises as a chore, but a means to an end. On Monday, I did all of them first thing in the morning, so that I could benefit from the rush of creativity that follows physical exertion. As I did, I reflected on that very decision as a mark of fortitude. Rather than jump into the day mindlessly, guided by a sneaky sense of anxiety that if I didn’t start right there and then, I would never get everything done that I must, I took my time to prepare myself, which – in turn – would allow me to better execute, and faster. Thus, physical exercise became preparation for work – and delaying direct engagement with the task a form of patience and courage.

Training has a cumulative effect, and brings a sense of ease. On Tuesday, then again on Wednesday, I did all exercises in a row, right after waking up, fifteen then sixteen push ups in a sequence, followed by sit-ups, dog-birds, cow-dogs, back twists and squats. This brought a deep sense of pleasure: not only was I able to do that much, but I could save time and effort. Each decision we make has a cost, including each time we start something new. Three small work-out sessions therefore, at three different times in the day, is more demanding on the brain than a single chunk. If I know that I can tackle a larger task, I can mentally bundle smaller ones into the one, and save energy for more.

Part of my approach to fortitude is envisaging my own mortality by reflecting on my own sense of time – and the first step I chose to take for this was to clear my personal archives. I took a day off on Thursday, after submitting the final chapter draft for my coming PhD milestone. In the morning, I headed off to South Melbourne for a café stroll. I came back home in the mid-afternoon, and dived into the photographs on my computer. While sitting under the metal awnings on York Street, I read about courage as belief in your own strength. The prospect of sorting through the jpegs on my Mac exceeded my sense of possibility, but then I thought – at least I can start. I ordered ‘all my files’ by type, and calmly went through the pictures, from the beginning, clearing doubles and ordering them in folders – meanwhile playing a backlog of podcasts. After five hours, I was two thirds of the way through. I had an early start on Friday, finished work around 5, and by 6h30pm, I was done. In less than seven hours, I completed an impossible task.

Exercise tally for the week

Push-ups: 93

Sit-ups: 93

Squats: 93

Dog-cows: 93

Bird-dogs: 93

Back twists: 93

Meditation: 3 sessions of 30’

Fortitude – Week 2

This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, temperance, and justice – I now reflect on fortitude, or the deliberate exercise of strength and courage in the face of evil. 

This week, I reflected on fortitude as ‘fitness’, or nurturing our readiness for action.

Fortitude requires vitality, and therefore, entails a measure of self-care. There was a minor controversy during the Melbourne Writers Festival: should self-care be considered an important part of activism? Yes, argued Laurie Penny from London – since without it, we lose the collective and personal capacity to move our ideas ahead.

On Monday, I sorted through the files of an old computer, which held copies of all the texts I have written since 2002: hundreds of documents, including an entire novel I had forgotten about, together with the text of a travel blog that I lost access too, and was taken off the Internet. I am unsure exactly what I will do with this fifteen-year portfolio, but arranging it felt like discovering a forgotten savings account from years ago, and realising, with pleasure, that accrued interest had meanwhile yielded a substantial sum – making more ambitious plans and projects a greater possibility.

Fortitude is preparation for death. To that extent, it closely relates with our own mortality, and our own sense of time. The two dimensions of fortitude reflect the two fundamental dimensions of time – chronos and kairos, or time as duration and time as critical moment. The virtue demands that we bear patiently with the resistance of the real, in the world and ourselves, resolutely building habits and accepting the need for sustained effort. The virtue demands – just as much – that we be ready for critical moments when decision action is required and, when the moment arrives, that we press ahead.

Temperance, as I discovered, was all about exploring pleasure, learning to derive satisfaction not from excess and gluttony, but a calm and moderate relationship with natural processes. In contrast, fortitude, at least in those early weeks, is entirely goal-driven. I experience the most profound boredom in conducting a daily routine of exercise, I resent the time required now and – as I project myself eleven weeks ahead – the time I will have to spend on self-strengthening, in line with my commitment, at the end of the season. Yet I stick with it, not for intrinsic enjoyment, but belief that the method is right, and the goal is worthy.

Over the season, I will systematically train mind and body. For this, I will do a daily set of 6 physical exercises, with particular focus on core muscles, adding 1 rep/day for each, execute a daily qi-gong routine based on the 5 elements, adding 1 rep/element every week, and practice meditation, adding 1 session of 30’ every week. This week’s exercise tally:

Push-ups: 57

Sit-ups: 57

Squats: 57

Back twists: 57

Dog-birds: 57

Cow-birds: 57

Qi-gong – 5-elements: 5 x 2 reps for each element

Meditation: 3 sessions of 30’ each. (I started only this week, and therefore caught up on a missed session from last week).